With Top Spin 3--the upcoming tennis game from 2K Sports and developer PAM--the aim seems to be squarely focused on creating a more realistic game of tennis than in previous versions. That isn't to say that the previous Top Spin games have been arcade experiences, but by focusing on some new controls tweaks and an increased importance on realistic player movement, the third game can sometimes be a dramatic change from the older games in the series. We've been spending the past few days with an updated build of the game to see how it has progressed since we saw it last in February, during which we were able to check out the game's updated Career mode.
Creating a custom character will be your first task in your Top Spin 3 career, and you'll have more control than ever over how your alter ego appears in the game. You'll start with a preset build of a male or female character, one you can alter to your heart's content. You can select everything from body type to eye color, either using preset builds that will quickly get you up and running or shaping things as you see fit. The face-shaper feature is the most interesting bit; here, you can alter more than 20 individual points of articulation on your player's face. It's powerful enough that, with some time and patience, you could probably create some realistic facsimiles of real players. It's also easy enough to use that, with just a few flicks of the thumbsticks, you can create a horribly inbred-looking creep that has no business being on a tennis court.
Once you've got your character worked out, it's time to hit the courts. You'll start in the amateurs where you'll face three opponents on a local court. Though you shouldn't have much trouble wiping the floor with these scrubs, you'll immediately see a difference between this Top Spin and the previous games in the series. You'll still have a variety of shots available to you at the press of a button: standard, slice, lob, and the top spin shot. It's apparent early on that relying on the standard shot is not going to get your very far in the game, even when going up against the scrub opponents.
Part of the problem is that your player is a scrub too. With bottomed-out attributes, he or she is slow, weak, and doesn't have much control over his or her shot; but luckily, neither do your opponents. It's relatively easy to take them down, provided you mix up your shot selection and placement. You'll want to get your footwork down in these early matchups because player placement means more in Top Spin 3 than in any tennis game in recent memory. First of all, it takes longer for a player to change direction and get from one side of the court to the other, especially in the early goings when his or her speed ratings are down. Secondly, the quality of your shot has a lot to do with where your feet are when you swing--how close or far away you are from the ball and how early you begin your backswing.
Once you've dispatched of the local competition, it's time to move up to the Challenger level. This is a tournament where you first have to beat the players in your group before moving on to the tournament itself. Players are tougher here, so it's good news that you can improve your player's performance with experience points you earn from victories in the game. You spend experience for points you can spread across eight attributes--forehand, backhand, service, return, volley, power, speed, and stamina. As you increase attributes in a category, the cost for additional points in that category will also rise. Your player starts with 300 attribute points total, and as you go, you'll be able to max him or her out with a total of 560 points. In addition to earning experience points, you'll earn unlock points that you can spend on new clothing items, accessories, and equipment.
You'll need all of those points once you reach the third level of competition in your career: the juniors. Here, you'll have a calendar system with two tournaments available to you per month--an easy tourney and a hard one. Naturally, the harder tournaments feature competition that is a notch above that in the Challenge level, so you'll want to spend a little time with the easy matches to begin with while building your character in preparation of the tougher matches. Alternately, you can spend some time in the game's extensive tutorial mode--where you can practice everything from basic baseline strategies to more advanced shot types, such as the drop shot or serves executed with the right stick. With the game's focus on realism, you have a good deal of control over where and what type of shot you choose. For example, when using the right stick to serve, you pull back (to toss the ball) and then can either move the stick straight forward for a flat serve, clockwise for a slice, or counterclockwise for a lift serve.
Beyond honing the game's control scheme, the developers at PAM have also been hard at work on the game's graphics, and it shows. You've come to expect realistic player models in sports games on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and Top Spin 3 won't disappoint here. You've got great-looking models of such top-name tennis stars as Maria Sharapova and Roger Federer, as well as a few classic players, such as Bjorn Borg and Boris Becker. The courts you play on also look good and feature a mixture of real-life locales, as well as slightly more outlandish fictional courts that add some variety to the visuals.
The realistic tennis action in Top Spin 3 takes some getting used to, but there's undoubtedly a lot of depth to the action. It will be interesting to see how the game's online competition--which will include new tournaments every two weeks to determine an online champion--shapes up now that players will have an increased level of control. Top Spin 3 is prepared for service on June 23, so look out for our review of the game at that time.